A Commitment to Truth: The Twentieth Anniversary of the Baptist Faith & Message

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
December 18, 2020

The year of our Lord 2020 must not pass into history without reflecting on the fact that this year marked the twentieth anniversary of one of the most significant events in the history of American Protestantism — the conservative revision of the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith, the “Baptist Faith and Message.”

By the end of the twentieth century, several denominations had revised their confessions of faith or creeds, but almost all had done so in order to accommodate theological liberalism. Clear doctrinal affirmations gave way to ambiguous language. In other cases, required doctrines simply disappeared. One example of a doctrinal disappearance is the absence of the virgin birth from the 1967 confession of the United Presbyterian Church, now part of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The historical importance of the Baptist Faith and Message revision of 2000 lies in its nearly unprecedented status as an intentionally conservative revision of a major denomination’s confession of faith. This event came as a capstone achievement of what is commonly referred to as the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.

That movement began in the recognition by many concerned Southern Baptists that the denomination was sliding into theological liberalism. Some seminary professors were denying crucial doctrines in the classroom, the denomination’s Sunday School Board was publishing materials contrary to Baptist conviction, and the problem of theological liberalism was showing up on the mission fields and in the pulpits. A movement to correct the shift emerged in the 1970s and gained strength throughout the 1980s. The 1990s were a decade of definition and consolidation of conservative gains. And yet, one issue loomed large over the denomination as the century drew to a close: What about the Baptist Faith and Message?

One crucial aspect of the Conservative Resurgence was the recovery of confessionalism. The role of the convention’s Baptist Faith and Message [BF&M] was essential — indeed far more essential than many conservatives had realized. Trustees and boards, and presidents of SBC entities needed a doctrinal standard in order to identify who should and should not teach in the schools, what was and was not acceptable in the classroom, in publication, and in personal beliefs. This is among the very purposes of a confession of faith. So why was the Baptist Faith and Message not sufficient?

The Southern Baptist Convention did not have a full confession of faith until 1925, when such a statement became necessary as debates over liberalism were roiling northern denominations and issues like evolution were showing up, even in the South. Under the leadership of E. Y. Mullins, president of Southern Seminary, the convention accepted a committee recommendation and adopted a revised form of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith at the 1925 convention, meeting in Memphis. That same session saw the convention establish the Executive Committee and adopt the Cooperative Program. It was a very significant meeting.

At the same time, the Convention seemed uncertain of how the confession was to be employed. In the committee’s statement, confessions were described as “only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.” As subsequent developments would reveal, that statement, taken alone, was inadequate.

By the 1960s, the denominational train was off the theological tracks. The Sunday School Board’s publishing arm released not one, but two major books denying the historicity of Genesis and embracing the Documentary Hypothesis. The first was written by a seminary professor, who later argued that his view was shared by most of his colleagues in the six seminaries.  Between the publication of those two books, the convention returned to the Baptist Faith and Message with a new committee, chaired by Oklahoma City pastor Herschel Hobbs. The key issue was the authority and inspiration of the Bible. Hobbs affirmed biblical inerrancy, but he and his committee actually brought a revision of the BF&M that embraced a neo-orthodox view of Scripture. The Bible was defined as “the record of God’s revelation of himself to man,” rather than God’s revelation itself, in verbal form. Worse, the 1963 revision concluded its statement on Scripture with a neo-orthodox escape hatch big enough to allow any heresy: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”

That language did not, as its defenders argued, represent a Christological affirmation of the Bible. Orthodox confessions had done that well. Instead, it was an effort to allow explicit biblical teachings to be relativized by claiming to use the life and ministry of Jesus as leverage. This would show up in countless examples as an open door to deny the authority of biblical texts that stood in the way of, for example, the limitation of the pastoral teaching office to men.

There were other theological problems and tensions that became evident by the 1990s. In 1998, the Convention saw need to adopt a new article on ‘The Family” as it met in Salt Lake City. That article affirmed the biblical conception of the family and what by that time was identified as complementarianism, which affirmed distinct roles for men and women in the home and in the church. Given larger social, moral, and theological developments, the need for the article was evident.

The very next year, the Southern Baptist Convention authorized a comprehensive revision of the BF&M, tasking a new committee to make a report to the Convention at its next meeting, to be held in Orlando. That committee was appointed by SBC President Paige Patterson, who also presided as the committee brought its report in Orlando. The committee was chaired by Adrian Rogers, the Memphis pastor who was a towering figure of the conservative movement, and (like Mullins and Hobbs) had served as SBC president. I was honored to serve on this committee, along with 14 others.

The report brought by the committee to the 2000 convention represented a conservative consensus of needed corrections. The BF&M as revised by the Convention’s overwhelming approval in Orlando affirmed biblical teachings concerning human sexuality and gender, even as the larger culture was embracing very different views. Corrections were made to several articles, clarifying and strengthening the confessional language.

Most importantly, the 2000 revision corrected the neo-orthodox language on Scripture. The Bible was affirmed as “God’s revelation of Himself to man,” not merely as the record of that revelation. Biblical inerrancy was affirmed, as all Scripture is “totally true and trustworthy.” The “criterion” language was removed and the Bible was affirmed as “a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”

There is more to the story, but the historic act of the Southern Baptist Convention in revising its confession of faith as a restatement of greater orthodoxy is a story that must be told. The twentieth anniversary of this action should not go without notice, or celebration by Southern Baptists. It is a reminder of what it takes to “contend for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints” [Jude 3]. It was, and remains, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s greatest moments.


A few important notes:

  1. The Baptist Faith and Message (often identified as BFM or BF&M) is, at any given time, what the Southern Baptist Convention has adopted most recently. Put simply, the BF&M is whatever the Southern Baptist Convention says it is. It remains such until such time as the Convention may take other action. There is no technical need to refer to the BF&M adopted in 2000 as the “BF&M 2000,” though that may be necessary at times when contrast is made with previous editions. We note that some self-identified “moderate” Baptist churches and bodies have rejected the BF&M in its current form and identify their affirmation of the BF&M 1963. That action speaks for itself, and should be noted. The Southern Baptist Convention revised the BF&M in 2000, and there it stands.
  2. Members of the 1999-2000 Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee included Max Barnett (OK), Steven Gaines (AL), Susie Hawkins (TX), Rudy A. Hernandez (TX), Charles S. Kelley, Jr. (LA), Heather King (IN), Richard Land (TN), Fred Luter (LA), R. Albert Mohler, Jr. (KY), T. C. Pinckney (VA), Nelson Price (GA), Adrian Rogers (chairman, TN), Roger Spradlin (CA), Simon Tsoi (AZ), and Jerry Vines (FL).
  3. Members of the 1997-1998 Committee on the Baptist Faith and Message included Bill Elliff (AR), Anthony Jordan (chairman, OK), Richard Land (TN), Mary Mohler (KY), Dorothy Patterson (TX), Damon Shook (TX), John Sullivan (FL).
  4. A helpful comparison table of the 1925, 1963, and 2000 editions of the Baptist Faith and Message may be found here.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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